I haven’t recommended a book in a while, so this month I’m recommending two, both of them new, both of them about language. (And each one blurbed by the author of the other one, which must be a coincidence, right?)
“Controversial terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism,’ tend to shut down dialog because they mean different things to different people.” The AllSides Red Blue Dictionary defines these hot-button terms across the political spectrum: “Until we fully understand what a term means to someone else, we don't know the issue and can't effectively communicate.”
I’m enjoying (and learning from) the short essays Susan Orlean publishes on Medium, especially her stories about the writing craft. Here she is on beginnings and on endings.
On March 13, 2020, Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski noticed that all of the dictionary’s lookups were pandemic related: coronavirus, quarantine, draconian, lockdown, cancel. For the somber one-year anniversary this month, WGBH looked at how the pandemic has transformed the English language, and whether its impact will endure:
Will people five years from now still say they are “zooming” when they conduct a video meeting online? Will slang terms like “doomscrolling” and “covidiot” make their way into wider use or be little-known relics from a brief moment in time? Will “COVID-19,” in all-caps, be the preferred styling? Or will it be overtaken by “Covid-19,” in lowercase, a styling many news organizations have started using?
I’ve been writing about novel coronavirus words for just over a year now. (Remember quarantinis? What happened to all those covidpreneurs?) The latest coronacoinages—thanks to Ben Zimmer for coining that word—reflect a gradually changing reality: a new administration in the White House, increased availability of vaccines, and—underlying it all—the urge to return to something like “normal.”
“Trade characters” like Aunt Jemima and the Quaker Oats man used to be much more common in American commerce than they are today, writes logo expert James I. Bowie in Marker. They were so common, in fact, that the US Patent and Trademark Office assigned six-digit codes to trademark applications to “capture personal characteristics, including race and gender, as they were perceived in American culture many decades ago”:
There are codes for Native Americans and Asian Pacific people, but not for African Americans. Women, but not men, can be coded as “Hawaiian,” while men, but not women, can be deemed “Famous,” “Cowboys and westerners,” or “Farmers, hillbillies, or hobos” (the second of these terms was recently stricken). The categories for Scottish men and women seem to exist solely to code trade characters representing thriftiness — or, more bluntly, cheapness.
Aunt Jemima pancake mix, circa 1940s. James Bowie: “The Aunt Jemima logo was given codes 020301 (portraits of women) and 020315 (women wearing scarves on their heads).” Read my February 10 post about Aunt Jemima’s recently announced name change.
Had I been a member of the House of Representatives during the body’s impeachment deliberations, I would have added to Trump’s indictment the crime of pandemicide, naming him as responsible for most of the COVID-19 deaths that transpired while he, the nation’s leader, was preoccupied with damning Joe Biden’s election victory. Trump’s failure to, as he vowed in his oath of office, “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States” promulgated a scale of lives lost exceeding anything experienced in the country since the Civil War, 160 years ago.
Pandemicide is a new word, although Garrett is not the first person to use it. In September 2020, David Bookbinder, a psychotherapist who lives near Boston, published an essay (also released as a free e-book) titled “Pandemicide,” in which he makes an argument similar to Garrett’s: that throughout the pandemic, “Trump & Company have encouraged the virus’s spread”:
This was not denial, not incompetence, not accidental. Not even manslaughter, because manslaughter is unpremeditated. It is pure, cold-blooded murder-by-virus.
But the impeachment took place in January and February, and in March everything changed thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, which has influenced our behavior and our language in ways we couldn’t have anticipated in early 2020. My list this year reflects many of those new COVID-inspired terms, but it also makes room for fashion and politics. Like the American Dialect Society, I give preference to words (or “lexical items”—acronyms and phrases appear here, too) that were new or newly prominent, widely used, and relevant to events of 2020. I’m also interested in words that were linguistically productive: capable of generating creative coinages.
By the way, this is my twelfth consecutive year of posting words of the year. I’m kind of shocked myself.
Politically, California remains blue: My state voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, 63.5 to 34.3 percent, and has a Democratic governor, two Democratic US Senators and a majority-Democratic Congressional representation.
But in our non-electoral lives, it was a very purple year.
It’s Word of the Year season, and two British dictionaries are leading the pack. Collins picked lockdown – a word we threw around here in the US but never experienced the way they did in the UK and elsewhere. (A friend of mine is literally confined to her London apartment after spending a month in France: she can’t go outdoors at all.) And Oxford Languages, publisher of the Oxford dictionaries, chose a phenomenon instead of a single word: the impact of the COVID-19 on language. “What struck the team as most distinctive in 2020 was the sheer scale and scope of change,” Katherine Connor Martin, the company’s head of product, told the New York Times’s Jennifer Schuessler. “This event was experienced globally and by its nature changed the way we express every other thing that happened this year.”
“Social distance”: sign in an Oakland produce-store window, May 2020.